Commercial textiles defy conventional definitions of sustainability. Designed to enhance and perform in environments that demand varying degrees of durability, they are the products of a manufacturing process that is traditionally heavy in the use of water, energy, and chemicals. Determining which textiles are veritably green requires understanding how they are fabricated and perform.
Textiles have three primary applications in commercial projects: wallcoverings, drapes, and upholstery. Performance and code considerations for each differ, complicating specification. Fire codes, for example, are more strict for wall and window coverings than for upholstery, the latter of which emphasize wear resistance. Meanwhile, shading fabrics, says Bill Strickland, Phifer’s national marketing manager of sun control products, are evaluated by their ability to limit solar heat gain and the effects of UV light, weatherization, glare, and visibility.
Tried and Tested
To simplify the specification process, the Association for Contract Textiles (ACT), a nonprofit trade organization made up of designers, producers, and other commercial interior textile companies, developed voluntary performance guidelines for commercial textiles in five categories: flame resistance; UV resistance; physical properties, which includes breaking strength, seam slippage, and pilling; abrasion resistance for upholstery; and crocking, or color fastness.
Perhaps the most recognized of the test methods are the Wyzenbeek and Martindale rub tests, both of which measure abrasion resistance. In the former, two fabric samples cut in the warp and weft directions are rubbed back and forth against a piece of cotton duck cloth fabric. Meanwhile, the Martindale test applies a worsted wool cloth to disc-shaped samples in a figure-eight motion. In both cases, the test ends when two threads break or when wear is noticeable in the fabric’s appearance. Wyzenbeek ratings are given in 5,000 sets of double rubs and Martindale evaluates wear resistance in 1,000 cycles.
ACT’s performance guidelines set two benchmarks for abrasion resistance. For general upholstery use, such as in executive boardrooms and offices, ACT recommends a rating of 15,000 double rubs under the Wyzenbeek method, or 20,000 cycles under the Martindale test. Applications susceptible to more wear, such as hotel rooms, conference rooms, and fine dining restaurants, require upholstery textiles rated at 30,000 double rubs or 40,000 cycles, respectively. Environments that operate around the clock, such as airports and emergency rooms, may need even higher abrasion resistance.
But abrasion ratings alone cannot accurately predict a fabric’s durability. Research by ACT found multiple tests on the same fabric can produce results that differ by as much as 25,000 double rubs; it also found that double rubs exceeding 100,000 don’t necessarily provide additional value. Moreover, though a textile’s finish, coating, or yarn composition may negatively affect its performance during rub tests, it may not have any impact on its lifespan once in use. Durability can also be compromised by UV light exposure, poor upholstering, seam slippage, microbial contamination, and improper maintenance.
Because of their durability, synthetics are the commercial textile of choice, accounting for 59 percent of the world’s fiber production in 2012, according to the Industrial Association of Chemical Fibers. The most common of these is polyester, which works well on walls, as drapery, and in upholstery, says Cliff Goldman, president of textile design and manufacturing firm Carnegie. Other popular synthetics are nylon, whose toughness suits it to upholstery, and polyolefin, which works well on walls and furniture. Polyurethane, which is soft, flexible, and easy to clean, is also commonly used in upholstery.
Another benefit of synthetics is their ability to assume virtually any physical or aesthetic characteristic, says Iris Wang, design director and founder of Brentano. Because synthetics comprise extruded polymers, additives incorporated during their manufacture can manipulate their appearance or enhance performance characteristics, such as flame retardancy or wrinkle resistance. Synthetics can also be solution-dyed, which adds color prior to fiber formation for colorfastness even when exposed to bleach. Their wear resistance and low-maintenance needs can result in cost savings.
The Green Catch
The real cost of synthetic textiles lies in their environmental impact. Most, if not all, synthetic textiles are derived from petroleum through chemical processes that use toxic substances, which can leach into waterways if wastewater is not treated. Their manufacture also produces hazardous byproducts and greenhouse gases that can be more damaging than carbon dioxide, says Kathleen McMullen Coady, owner and creative director of Tower Design Studio in San Francisco. Synthetic fibers have a higher level of embodied energy than natural fibers and generally do not biodegrade.
Natural fibers are not without their hazards. Cotton, for example, is considered the dirtiest of all crops: Grown on 2.4 percent of the world’s cultivated land, it accounts for 16 percent of global insecticide use, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, a London-based nonprofit. Processing natural fibers into textiles requires the use of harsh chemicals and large volumes of water. The World Bank estimates that textile dyeing and treatment, which can use up to 72 toxic chemicals, are responsible for 20 percent of global industrial water pollution.
Recent advances aim to lighten commercial textiles’ environmental impact. Synthetic fabrics are being made with recycled plastic water bottles, and gains in bioplastics have enabled the creation of high-performance fabrics from plants such as corn and sugarcane, reducing the use of petrochemicals, says Deidre Houget, environmental strategy manager for Designtex. Textile producers are also treating wastewater in-house and using renewable resources and biomass for fuel. Alternative dyeing technologies that incorporate foam and air can further reduce water consumption.
The adoption of sustainable practices has yielded cost benefits and burdens. For example, in-house water treatment is expensive, Brentano’s Wang notes, and “some mills would rather close their business than build a water treatment tank because they would not be able to recoup its cost.” However, foam dyeing has enabled some companies to become more competitive because it allows the size of their infrastructure to be reduced.
Specifying a sustainable textile may not cost more, Hoguet says. Recycled polyester costs less than it did when it was introduced in the 1990s. And an increase in recycling infrastructure has made recycled materials more widely available, Hoguet says, while biopolymers are increasingly obtainable and scalable.
Given the complexity of textile sourcing and manufacturing, green certification programs can help specifiers spot greenwashing. Greenguard, for example, focuses on how the product impacts indoor air quality. The Global Organic Textile Standard covers the entire production process, but only for textiles made from organic fibers. The Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard bases its four levels of certification on a project’s achievements in the categories of material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship, and social fairness. However, the standard is not textile-specific.
ACT is looking to provide a green standard dedicated to commercial textiles with NSF/ANSI 336, a multi-attribute, lifecycle-oriented standard that was adopted in 2011. The standard was developed by NSF International in conjunction with ACT and GreenBlue, a nonprofit based in Charlottesville, Va., that advises businesses on sustainable products. NSF/ANSI 336 evaluates sustainable commercial textiles based on criteria in eight categories: fiber sourcing, material safety, water conservation, water quality, energy awareness during production, air quality, recycling in manufacturing and end use, and social accountability. The voluntary program operates on a point system, with 100 points being the maximum, and it certifies products as compliant, silver, gold, or platinum.
The sustainability of a textile is not entirely dependent on its physical properties. Aesthetics can also have a role in determining a material’s staying power. Organic and geometric patterns are currently trending, while neutrals and earth tones with bright colors that serve as accents continue to dominate the market, notes Jill Kramer, project manager at Irvine, Calif.–based integrated design firm LPA. She also recommends that designers specify furniture upholstered in designs covered by companies’ non-obsolescence policies, allowing clients to add or replace individual pieces, rather than whole systems, as needed.
Social equity and worker conditions are also garnering more attention in the industry. While recent media reports have exposed social and environmental abuses in overseas clothing textile production, Carnegie’s Goldman says the contract textile industry is smaller and “more evolved.” Moreover, Brentano’s Wang adds, some governments in Asian countries are helping local textile mills green their manufacturing processes. As the commercial textile industry continues to evolve and social awareness around its impacts across the supply chain increases, design professionals and their clients can play a vital role by demanding greater transparency in the textiles and materials used in their buildings.